This post reviews Thomas Clark, “Virtual Schooling and Basic Education” in Bramble and Panda, eds., Economics of Distance and Online Learning: Theory, Practice and Research(New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 52-71.
Clark, president of TA Consulting, which helps cybercharters develop successful long-term strategies, and author of several articles on virtual schools, here presents a broad overview of virtual schools, aimed at an international audience. He begins by defining a virtual school as “an educational organization that offers K-12 courses through Internet- or Web-based methods.” To qualify as virtual schooling, formal instruction must be offered; websites offering online curriculum alone do not make the cut.
Clark classifies virtual schools by the entity that controls them. Some are run by State governments, some by universities, some by consortia, some by local school districts, some by charter schools, and some by private schools. He takes each of these categories in turn.
State-Level Virtual Schools–By 2005 about 20 states offered some form of virtual schooling, usually as a supplement to regular schools but sometimes as a service to homeschoolers. The Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is the largest and best known of these, with an enrollment of 33,000 in 2004-05, operating with a $14.9 million budget.
Consortia–Consortia programs pool the resources of several groups to spread the cost of online learning. Some state programs, such as Colorado Online Learning, operate this way. Other consortia are comprised of local school districts who pool their resources (like Alaska Online). The best known consortium is the nonprofit Virtual High School (VHS), which requires each of its participating schools in 22 states and 15 countries to commit one teacher to its online course offerings. In exchange, the school is assured a classroom’s worth of seats in any of the courses VHS offers. In 2003-04, VHS enrolled 5,069 students.
University-Based Programs–About half of the distance education offered by the nation’s public schools is done in collaboration with colleges and universities. Many colleges and universities offer online course offerings to high schoolers as independent study options. Advanced Placement courses are especially popular.
Virtual Charter Schools–As of 2005, 40 states had charter school laws in place, enabling the establishment of alternative schools free from many of the constraints placed on traditional public schools but still funded by government. 16 of those states have allowed virtual charter schools, which offer free public education online. Often these schools are run by for-profit companies. Clark here highlights especially some of the virtual schools in Pennsylvania, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of virtual charter school attendance. He notes that some homeschoolers have been critical of this trend toward government-funded homeschooling.
Private Schools–Some private schools have gone virtual as well. Such schools face the same accreditation hurdles all private schools must confront. Increasingly, online curriculum providers are creating their own private virtual schools.
Why has online education become so popular so quickly? Clark gives several reasons. First, the technology to do it is now widely available as internet access has become pervasive. Second, Federal-level policies and priorities have encouraged the development of online learning (No Child Left Behind and the National Educational Technology Plan are examples of this). Third, federal funds have followed federal policy priorities. The federal E-Rate Program, for example, provides discounts of 20-90% for internet access, especially in high-poverty urban and rural areas. State policies and funding have also boosted online learning. Behind many of these government iniatives is a concern for equity in access to technology, an attempt to bridge what is often called the “digital divide” between rich and poor and between majority and minority.
In addition to these government initiatives, private interests have also fostered the expansion of online learning. For-profit online curriculum providers have lobbied hard to secure favorable virtual charter school legislation. Parents eager for this option have made their opinions known to State legislators. And while public opinion surveys have not found high levels of support for virtual public education, the nay voices haven’t been nearly as motivated or organized to shape policy.
Clark concludes with some current challenges facing the virtual school model. First, many of these schools, especially the virtual charter schools, have had serious accountability problems. Accrediting agencies like the National School Boards Association have been developing quality standards for online education, but there is more work to be done here. Second, funding is a perennial issue. As state budgets contract and educational spending is cut, online education may suffer. In addition, tension often runs high between virtual charter schools and traditional public schools that resent having to share public funds with these new entities. Recent studies of online schools find that they cost the same as or in some cases a bit more per pupil than do traditional schools, so cuts in funding are a real threat. Finally, long term planning is a serious issue. Some virtual schools grow so fast that they are unable to manage. As with accreditation, organizations like Eduventures and others are emerging to help virtual schools develop long-term strategies for success.
After a short section on virtual learning for adults, Clark ends by predicting that the worries some Americans express about the transition to online learning will subside as a younger generation more comfortable with the virtual learning environment ascends. Clark believes virtual education will continue to grow in popularity.
I found this article quite helpful as a summary of the phenomenon. Since it was just published I was hoping for some more recent data. It was disappointing to see few statistics that took us beyond 2005, for in the rapidly changing world of online education 2005 is ancient history. My own recent article covering some of these same trends has some more current data, but not like it should have. I was hoping this book chapter would bring me up to date, but it did not. Nevertheless, as a comprehensive survey it is very helpful, especially its classification of virtual schools by sponsoring entity.
My only other criticism is that Clark might have dwelt a bit longer on some of the problems with virtual schools. He only barely mentions some of the controversies that have emerged in recent years over virtual charter schools. His section on quality is especially derelict in this regard. The movement has been rife with scandalous profiteering and shady educational practices. Hopefully the worst is behind us, but, as parents using some of Pennsylvania’s current cybercharters will be quick to attest, the movement still has its share of maverick leaders resistant to accountability measures desired by parents and government agencies.